Fast-forward to today, and the category is much more diverse. Prices have inched higher, with premium bottles more prevalent, and flavor profiles have broadened. Some are rich and spiced or extravagantly Sherried to the point of displaying fruitcake flavors.
Others offer robust, smoky characteristics that would satisfy those who love peated Scotch. And like brethren in Scotland and America, Irish whiskeys sport an ever-widening variety of cask finishes. Bourbon and Sherry casks are common, but unusual options like stout, Calvados and Marsala can also be found.
In just a decade, the industry surged from a mere four distilleries in 2010 to 38 operational facilities by November 2020, according to a December report by the trade group Drinks Ireland/Irish Whiskey Association. Each of these distilleries is seeking to distinguish itself and the spirits it produces.
According to the report, the U.S. is by far the largest market for Irish whiskey, accounting for 42% of all sales in 2019, up from 28% in 2010. This increase was driven by use in cocktails and interest in high end, premium bottlings.
Furthermore, sales of Irish whiskey in the U.S. could surpass those of Scotch over the next decade, the report predicts. If that indeed comes to pass, it would be the first time that has happened since before the 1920s.
More—and more diverse—Irish whiskey in the glasses of American consumers? Now that’s something to celebrate.
Bushmills The Rare Casks 28 Years Limited Release No. 01 Cognac Cask Irish Whiskey; $500, 98 points. This is a single malt distilled in 1992, matured in Bourbon and Sherry casks, and finished in Cognac casks. It’s a delicious, nuanced dram, with vanilla and fresh-cut red apple on nose and palate and a superlight, almost effervescent texture. A splash of water teases out lemon mousse and a puff of smoke on the exhale.
Drumshanbo Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey; $63, 95 points. Richly spiced aromas lead into a smooth, luxurious palate that sinks into flavors of vanilla, dried apricot and dried date. Adding water unlocks more vanilla and sweet spices like clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. This is a big, mouthfilling whiskey to sip with a cube of ice or consider as a dessert pairing.
The Busker Irish Whiskey; $25, 94 points. Billed as a triple cask whiskey, the liquid was finished in barrels that previously held Sherry, Bourbon and Marsala. The result is a cinnamon and faint floral aroma, and a palate that sizzles with baking spice. It eventually mellows into flavors of vanilla wafer, cocoa and dried fig, finishing with gingery zing. Best Buy.
Kilbeggan Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey; $45, 93 points. Fresh cut apple and a hint of smoke lead the nose. The robust, flavorful palate offers a surprising plummy note, finishing long and drying with cayenne and clove heat. Altogether, the pleasing effect is like spice cake doused in whiskey.
McCabe’s Irish Whiskey; $30, 93 points. Look for a pale gold hue and toasty aroma. The palate shows dusty nutmeg and cayenne spice, coupled with a meaty, umami note. Adding water enhances the spice and brings forward toasted grain, oatmeal cookie and malted milk notes, finishing drying and astringent. This is blended Irish whiskey pot-distilled in Ireland, proofed and bottled in Indiana. Best Buy.
Teeling Blackpitts Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey; $75, 93 points. This is a peated single-malt Irish whisky, matured in Bourbon and Sauternes casks. Mild peat and tropical fruit intertwine on nose and palate, giving an impression of pineapple playing hide-and-seek through the smoke. Torched rosemary, smoked sage, lemon verbena and white pepper wind into the finish.
Silkie The Legendary Irish Whiskey; $40, 92 points. This blended Irish offers light, fresh aromas of fresh-cut red apple, vanilla and coconut. The palate opens with vanilla sweetness and cinnamon spice, winding into a fruity midpalate and finishing with a faint hint of smoke. Adding water opens up more peaty flavor.
Slane Triple Casked Irish Whiskey; $30, 92 points. A particularly full-bodied whiskey, look for candied orange and Sherried raisin aromas, leading into a fruitcake-like palate. It is warm and sticky, with flavors of maple, dried date and baking spice that lead into the finish. Best Buy.
Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey; $40, 92 points. This Irish whiskey finished in rum casks has a bold baked-apple character backed up with vanilla and lots of oak. Adding water unleashes grapefruit peel, a hoppy hint and clove sizzle.
The Whistler Calvados Cask Finish Irish Whiskey; $40, 90 points. You don’t see many spirits finished in Calvados, a French apple brandy. This one opens with a vanilla aroma and cinnamon spice up front that reads like Red Hots candies and cinnamon gum. The midpalate shows sarsaparilla, leading into cayenne heat on the exhale. A splash of water and little time to open up yields a faint apple hint and amps up the cinnamon spice, creating an end result that suggests candied apple, with a drying finish. Limited release.